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WASHINGTON LETTER Nov-23-2011 (900 words) Backgrounder. With photos posted Nov. 10 and graphics posted Nov. 23. xxxn

Poverty in the midst of plenty: Hunger persists in the United States

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- As U.S. nutritionists cringe over the prospect of an overweight nation indulging in a two-month binge of "season's eatings" -- from Halloween candy to Thanksgiving dinners to Christmas feasts to New Year's parties -- there are millions of Americans who aren't sure they're going to get enough to eat this day or the next.

The problem is made worse by lack of access to nutritious food, as residents of America's poorest cities and neighborhoods have little choice but to make do with fast food or convenience stores that don't stock fresh produce.

And even if they were the food-savviest consumers in the country, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- the new name for food stamps -- doesn't stretch far enough to let each member in the household eat a healthy meal three times a day, seven days a week. Earlier this year, SNAP benefits were cut to pay for a boost in school lunch programs.

Hunger isn't the only issue.

A Catholic Charities USA third-quarter "snapshot" of its member agencies issued Nov. 22 found that 88 percent of the agencies either had to turn away people or maintain a waiting list for at least one service, 64 percent couldn't meet the need for emergency financial assistance, and 56 percent couldn't meet requests for utility assistance -- including 67 percent in Southern states dogged by heat waves and an extended drought.

What's more, requests for help by the working poor were up 80 percent over the second quarter, requests by families were up 66 percent, by the homeless up 60 percent -- and by the middle class up 59 percent.

"In the House's agricultural appropriations bill for 2012, it voted to take away nutrition assistance from 600,000 young children and their mothers who now participate in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program and to eliminate food aid rations for 14 million of the most desperate people in the world," said the Rev. David Beckmann.

The Lutheran minister, who is president of Bread for the World, a Christian anti-hunger lobby, made the comments in a preface to the organization's 22nd annual hunger report, titled this year "Rebalancing Act: Updating U.S. Food and Farm Policies."

The report is peppered with indictments of current U.S. food policy. "Current policies favor production of calories, not nutrients," it said. "Today, the United States does not even produce enough fruits and vegetables for Americans to meet the recommended daily allowances of vitamins and minerals."

Elsewhere, the report noted: "Agricultural research has been starved for public support. Shrinking food supplies, and the use of food crops to make biofuels, such as corn to make ethanol, are driving up the cost of food well beyond what people in poverty can afford." One woman reported that on days when money is scarce, she'll get by on a two-liter bottle of soda to feel full so that her children can eat real meals.

"We do not need farm policies that encourage farmers to produce more fats and sweeteners to feed hungry children," the report said.

At a Nov. 21 news conference to introduce the "Rebalancing Act" report, Rev. Beckmann said a new farm bill should get rid of agricultural subsidies in favor of revenue insurance, thus freeing up more funds for nutrition assistance in a country where federal statistics show that close to 46 million people are living in poverty.

"What farmers really need is some risk management," Rev. Beckmann said.

Tianna Gaines-Turner, mother of three children and stepmother to another three, is a member of Witnesses to Hunger, founded in Philadelphia by a Drexel University professor so hungry people could document what their lives are like continuously living hand-to-mouth. After two years of volunteering, she got a job with Witnesses to Hunger last year and is helping set up new chapters in Boston, Baltimore, Omaha, Neb., and Martha's Vineyard, Mass. -- not the first place one associates with hunger and poverty.

Gaines-Hunter told Catholic News Service Nov. 21 she planned to spend Thanksgiving "thankful that I have an adequate meal" and a safe, secure place to live for herself and her family.

Some are even less lucky. The D.C. Central Kitchen prepares 426 breakfasts and dinners each day for 801 East, a men's shelter in Washington operated by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. For many of the men, it is the only food they'll eat all day. The men must be out of the shelter by 7 a.m. each day, and cannot return until 7 p.m. each night.

The number of homeless men climbed with the onset of the 2008 recession, said Paul Amara, who helps manage shelters for Catholic charities. It was in this downturn, he added, that he first started seeing young men barely past the age of majority seeking shelter.

Amara told CNS that 801 East tries to give the men a little something extra at Thanksgiving and Christmas; some of the men may be taken in by relatives for the holiday. But the dynamics of homelessness are complicated, he said.

"Some stay and move on to other transitional housing programs. We have guys who come into the shelter and in the matter of a month or two get a job or something," Amara said. "We have some who stay forever. We also have recidivists. From November to March, the chronically homeless stay off the street.

"After that, you see them disappear."

END


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